A unique Canadian challenge: An interview with Carlsberg Canada CEO Sebastiaan Besems
“Even though we’re the third-biggest brewer in the world, we are looking to punch above our weight in Canada,” remarks Sebastiaan Besems, CEO of Carlsberg Canada.
The Danish brewer produced 11bn litres of beer in 2016 and amassed C$12.2bn in revenue. In terms of market share, Carlsberg holds a top-two position in 12 Western European, five Eastern European and seven Asian countries.
Canada represents a somewhat different, smaller beast. Molson Coors and AB InBev occupy the lion’s share of this marketplace, between them accounting for well over three-quarters of all beer sales.
But beer sales have been declining in the country – 2016’s total of 2.24bn litres represents consistent drops in annual output since 2008, with 2.34bn litres sold. For Besems and Carlsberg, currently sitting in the chasing pack, this signals a readiness for an alternative offering.
“My task here can be explained very simply: to professionalise the organisation and to make it ready for further growth, and to increase profitability,” Besems says. “We need to keep that growth trajectory from the past five to seven years and make sure it is sustainable.”
From Copenhagen to Canada
Having worked at Unilever for 11 years across numerous territories, Besems joined Carlsberg HQ’s global sales development team in Copenhagen in 2011. After gaining a solid grounding in how the business operates, he started to travel into the local markets: notably Russia, France, the Nordics, the UK and Malaysia.
“I am a true believer in the need to get out and get into the market, and not spend too long in a head office when you’re in this sort of commercial role,” Besems comments. “I had to practice what I preach.”
In the summer of 2014, he took the role of Commercial VP for New Business in Carlsberg’s Swiss division, a sizeable and profitable venture for the company, which is currently the market leader in Switzerland.
“Over my career I always wanted to work more in general management,” Besems continues, “and when I trace back through my time in business, I covered a lot of different functions such as finance, sales and marketing – step-by-step getting ready for that.”
In January 2016, the opportunity in Canada arose. “I thought it may have come a little too early as I had been in Switzerland for just under two years, but it was a great chance to lead a national market,” Besems says. “And it is a different challenge – I had been used to working in big markets for Unilever and Carlsberg to this point.
“For me, it was time to be experimental and entrepreneurial, although still within a multinational corporation. This is what Canada offered. We are not number one or two in the market, more like number four or five, but we are on a growth trajectory and profitable here.”
Besems paints a mixed picture of the Canadian brewing industry. On the one hand, it is mature with two big players holding a majority market share, while liquor boards still wield significant power, something the Dutchman is not used to from his experience in other markets.
However, there has been a sizable influx of craft brewers arriving in Canada, especially along the west coast, most notably Vancouver. The market is awash with beer flavours and innovation – great news for the consumer, but a trend which is placing ever more pressure on those companies in the chasing pack to gain real traction.
Carlsberg is neither part of the Canadian brewing establishment nor a craft brewer. “We certainly have a role to play here,” Besems asserts. “We can offer an alternative. Some craft brewers are actually struggling a little bit in terms of translating their stories into equally impressive service to customers - for instance, in terms of a dedicated salesforce and people on the ground to help with setting up bars and lines. Producing a quality, stable liquid that doesn’t, for example, double-ferment on the shelf and therefore has a good ‘drinkability’ for the consumer, is also another big challenge facing the craft industry.
“If we’re doing a good job, we can offer the best of both worlds. We can offer entrepreneurial solutions, aspirational brands, new liquids and innovations different to the flavours made by Molson Coors/Labatt which consumers have been used to for many years. This can be matched with the infrastructure and service provision.”
Indeed, perfect sales fundamentals form one of Besems’ three overarching priorities that he believes will help Carlsberg establish a firmer foothold in Canada.
The first focus revolves around branding, whether with newer entries to the market such as Brooklyn, Grimbergen and Not-Your-Father’s-Root-Beer, or Carlsberg brewing staples like Kronenbourg 1664, Somersby cider and Carlsberg premium lager. Each brand has its own story to tell, and Besems is determined to emulate the success of craft brewer storytelling while also being able to offer the aftersales infrastructure to back it up.
“Coupled with that is innovation,” adds Besems, who describes some of the recent work being carried out with Somersby and Kronenbourg Blanc flavours. “This year we announced another new flavour with Somersby – rhubarb – which is performing very well. We are also introducing a semi-dry cider under the brand. With Kronenbourg Blanc, we have made a red fruit flavour which is not very sweet, unlike a lot of fruity beers. This is currently being sold as Kronenbourg 1664 Fruits Rouges by the keg to bars, and will be introduced in bottles and cans in 2018.”
Carlsberg is actually a market leader for cider in Ontario and of the wheat beer category in Canada as a whole, and a continuous innovation pipeline with these trusted brands will only serve to strengthen this position. For Besems, the task is to bring more of Carlsberg’s portfolio into the limelight.
He concludes: “It is a great privilege and challenge to lead our Canadian business and help growing ‘probably the best beer and brands’ in the world.”
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.